George Washington forward Yuta Watanabe reminds coach Mike Lonergan of Kevin Durant — not in the best way to resemble the reigning NBA MVP, but also not in the worst.
Watanabe, at 6-foot-8, 200 pounds, is lanky. The Colonials’ roster lists five players lighter than him, four of whom are at least six inches shorter. His thin frame hasn’t stopped him from making an instant impact this season, though.
Entering George Washington’s Friday night showdown at No. 9 Virginia, he’s averaging 8.0 points and 4.5 assists per game as the 2-0 Colonials’ sixth man.
“The thing I like about [Watanabe], he’s not soft,” Lonergan said. “[He] kind of reminds me of Kevin Durant, when everybody said he couldn’t bench 185 — or whatever it was — at the combine, but it didn’t really affect him. … He just didn’t get pushed around, even though he looked so skinny. … Yuta, for his weight, he’s pretty tough.”
Watanabe, the third Japanese Division I basketball player ever, also hasn’t been stopped by his inexperience. Though he is old for a freshman.
The 20-year-old spent a season at St. Thomas More prep school in Oakdale, Connecticut, before committing to the Colonials in February. The ability he displayed there made Lonergan expect him to make an instant impact.
“[Watanabe] has a high basketball IQ, and he really listens,” Lonergan said. “He’s improved every day. … It’s kind of like it was at his prep school. … I saw him in September, and to see him by March — his prep school tournaments near the end of the year — he made such strides, just being comfortable with his teammates and everything. And my hope is the same thing will happen here.”
For Watanabe to fulfill his potential, Lonergan believes he must get stronger.
“I was worried about his strength [when I recruited him] and still am,” Lonergan said. “The problem for us is we really need him to be a power forward, a 4-man, and he’s more of a skilled 3 or face-up 4, so we got to work to take advantage of that.”
George Washington utilized Watanabe’s versatility in its first two games against Grambling State and Rutgers. While he hasn’t shot efficiently from the whole floor, 35.3 percent, he nailed 3 of his 5 attempts from 3-point range — a couple of which were set up by pick-and-pops with junior guard Kethan Savage.
Lonergan didn’t know how Watanabe’s bench press compared to Durant’s, but Colonials director of strength and conditioning Matt Johnson has told the coach that the player is getting stronger. He performs pushups in the morning and at night before he goes to bed, in addition to team training.
“It’ll take time, but hopefully in months to come, that’ll pay off because we can’t wait like a year or two for him to get stronger,” Lonergan said. “We’re hoping by January he’s made strides — Muscle Milk and everything else.”
Watanabe will face the most challenging test of his short college basketball career against Virginia. If he can take advantage of the Cavaliers’ three-guard lineup and compete in the paint with 6-8, 230-pound Anthony Gill and 6-8, 234-pound Darion Atkins, the hype surrounding Watanabe will continue to grow.
If he struggles, well, he has almost four more months of pushups and Muscle Milk before March Madness.